Aluminium: 10 Years of Favourite Worst Nightmare

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Arctic Monkeys – Favourite Worst Nightmare

Released April 23rd, 2007 on Domino Records

The Difficult Second Album has always been a problem in rock ‘n’ roll.  After an album that sets the world on fire, relatively speaking, the follow-up is constrained by time, hype, and record label needs.  It’s also constrained by artistic pig-headedness – the curse of “Oh they think we’re just about this sound, well WE’LL SHOW THEM!”

They inevitably don’t light the same fire that the first album did, and both the critics and paying public feel lukewarm and move on, leaving only a small coterie of hardcore fans who stick around, convinced that the band can do no wrong.  This was the Strokes on Room On Fire, The Hives on Tyrannosaurus Hives, Weezer on Pinkerton, Massive Attack on Protection, Alanis Morisette on Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, Live on Secret Samahdi.  This was, ostensibly, Arctic Monkeys on Favourite Worst Nightmare.

Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, the Sheffield band’s first album, was world-shaking, especially in their native England.  When the Strokes first came to the UK it was as though an atom bomb had gone off; within four years bands influenced by the Strokes were clogging up MySpace, hawking their wares and building their fanbase one grimy all-ages show in a small town after another.  Arctic Monkeys were one of those bands, but multiplied by a hundred.  At the height of MySpace as a social media platform, they were one of the two bands that leveraged their fanbase into massive real-world success (the other of course being Fall Out Boy).  Unlike their American counterparts, Arctic Monkeys could actually write good songs; Whatever People Say was chock-full of poetic renditions of liquored-up good times, a paean to English drinking culture, small-time rock scenes, and getting up to shifty business in very dodgy places.

How to follow up such a successful first album, though?  It’s a tightrope walk, as the Strokes themselves knew all too well, and it’s always going to be fraught with heavier criticisms than might otherwise be warranted.  So it went with Favourite Worst Nightmare.  Critics were unconvinced by the songs, claiming the snarky swipes at the scene that had given birth to them were dreadful.  While there is some merit to this particular criticism (especially in dead-ringer slogs like “If You Were There, Beware” and “The Bad Thing”) it obscures the great songs that are embedded in the album.  “Brianstorm” is a barnburner of an opener and a delightful piss-take on the younger set of would-be managers and show promoters.  “Teddy Picker”, “D Is For Dangerous”, and “Balaclava” hearken back to the band’s debut – leave the progress for the next three albums, this was all about doubling down on what worked.  “Fluorescent Adolescent” is a stone classic of a song, the sort of song that transcends whatever album it’s on to be a classic of a band’s canon; it’s first line (“You used to get it in your fishnets, now you only get it in your nightdress”) sums up an entire feeling of the kind of heavy nostalgia that can get you into serious trouble later in life in such a way that is honestly rare in youth-oriented rock ‘n’ roll.  Favourite Worst Nightmare is blessed with two of these sorts of classic tracks, the other being “505”.  “505” was, in 2007, the odd one out in the band’s catalog, a smooth number that builds up to a crescendo, rather than the riff-oriented bangers that the band was otherwise known for.  Humbug, their follow-up, would show a band that wanted to focus on this aspect of their songwriting, and it was all the better for it.

(The entire Glastonbury 2007 Arctic Monkeys performance!)

It’s somewhat funny to look back on Favourite Worst Nightmare and remember the disappointment some felt, and the defensiveness that others felt they needed to exude to combat this.  As far as contemporary bands, Arctic Monkeys have surely aged the best; AM, released in 2013, was easily one of the best albums of the year, a feat that bands like Fall Out Boy could only dream of (especially given that every album subsequent to From Under The Cork Tree was complete garbage).  Even the Strokes couldn’t manage that; everything after Is This It? was a mixed bag.  Not bad for four kids from Northern England.

Aluminium: 10 Years of And Their Refinement Of The Decline

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Stars Of The Lid – And Their Refinement Of The Decline

Released April 7th, 2007 on Kranky Records

Stars Of The Lid, here at least, deal with symphonies that have been compressed and stretched out and compressed again until the word “minimalist” doesn’t mean anything anymore.  This is music where the drones fade in and linger and then fade out again, creating the definition of ambient music and also establishing the purest sense of a symphony of drones.  Often times the tracks presented here feel like the tail-end of some greater whole, like someone cut off all of the end bits of Godspeed You! Black Emperor suites and stitched them together to create something new and bizarrely compelling.

There is something akin to Phillip Glass here, or a more spaced-out Brian Eno, but neither is really accurate.  It’s stark music that is too atomized to really be all that striking, and yet you’ll find yourself coming back to certain moments throughout the impressive length of the album time and time again.  There is a certain peace to the record, although it is an edgy peace, not entirely at home with itself.  If we return to the previous Godspeed analogy:  if Godspeed is the soundtrack of the apocalypse (as I’ve thought on numerous occasions) then And Their Refinement Of The Decline is the soundtrack to the still world that comes after the apocalypse, when the dust settles and the spiders spin their webs and all is but a silent, irradiated ruin.

Aluminium: 10 Years of From Here We Go Sublime

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The Field – From Here We Go Sublime

Released March 26th, 2007 on Kompakt Records

Axel Willner – The Field – didn’t do anything revolutionary on From Here We Go Sublime.  It didn’t progress his chosen field – although the exact nature of that chosen field can be a little blurry at times on the record?  Is it trance?  Is it a more European techno?  People at the time were enamored with the term “microhouse” and there’s definitely something to that term here.  It’s certainly in a broad sense house music:  the 4/4 beat, the hi-hats on the twos, the looping instrumentation, the arpeggios.  However, it feels like house music that has been compressed and blurred until it fits in a small, compact space; it’s the perfection of a form that existed for a nascent moment in time, the epitome of microhouse and a bangin’ good album.  Every sample Willner uses is piled on top of the last, layers piled on layers until you can no longer see the bottom; shot through all of that is a tight, thumping bass that pushes more air than the next six house records combined.  It’s the very definition of minimalism in EDM, and it’s textured, treated hooks burrow under your skin and stay there for life.

 

Aluminium: 10 Years of Sound Of Silver

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LCD Soundsystem – Sound Of Silver

Released March 12th, 2007 on DFA/Capitol Records

BestEverAlbums: #129

Who sounds like they’re having more fun than James Murphy?  In the middle of the Oughts, people thought dance-punk was something that honestly sounded like a good idea, probably because they heard a couple of old Gang Of Four records and thought they could inject some irony into the proceedings and call it a day (The Rapture).  Along with a number of groups who thought they could get along doing the same thing, James Murphy started putting out a string of singles on his co-owned DFA Records label that were along similar lines to the other stuff that was going on in 2005, with a key difference:  Murphy and LCD Soundsystem weren’t afraid to get funny as well as funky; it was this combination that made their early singles such successes, and their self-titled debut such a critical darling.

 

Sound Of Silver, their sophomore effort, turns that idea on it’s head.  To be sure, it’s still funny as hell:  the self-deprecating party kids of “North American Scum” make for great fun; the chorus of “Sound Of Silver” is good for a rueful grin.  What Sound Of Silver really is, though, is poignant, and it rides that particular aspect far better than LCD Soundsystem rode snarky humour.  “Someone Great” looks back on the lost, both broken relationships and dead people; “All My Friends” contains the immortal line “You spent the first five years trying to get with the plan / and the next five years trying to get with your friends again.”  “Us Vs. Them” feels alienated from the crowd and all the sad drunk boys on their knees; “New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down” is exactly what it says on the tin – a nostalgia for the old septic New York City and an admission that sometimes the modern theme park version of NYC can get a little much.

 

Wrapping all of this feels is a slick, eminently danceable disco-punk that keeps moving without stopping (until the end, of course; “New York” is the perfect comedown for a sweat-filled night out).  The effect is that Sound Of Silver sounds like a night out with your friends, the ones you haven’t seen in forever but for whom it feels as though no time at all has passed.  You want the night to last forever and for a while it feels like it will but eventually you get exhausted and the city seems like a vulture waiting to pick your bones clean and then the sun comes up and there’s one last fleeting bit of glory before you stumble through the dawn streets to find your bed so you can collapse and pass out.  It’s as much fun as it sounds.

Aluminium: 10 Years of Neon Bible

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Arcade Fire – Neon Bible

Released March 3rd, 2007 on Merge Records

BestEverAlbums: #99

RYM:  #426

Rock ‘n’ roll is shot through with instances of the Difficult Second Album.  A band makes it big, often by surprise, with a debut album that resonates with the masses.  The band then tours like mad, builds up a huge amount of hype, and is suddenly faced with the prospect of having to follow up that glorious debut with something that keeps the momentum going.  James Hetfield once said “you have 18 years to write your first album, and six months to write the second,” and it’s uncomfortably true.  Metallica themselves made it through okay, releasing a second album that was even better than their debut; many other bands have fallen by the wayside by doing the exact opposite.  Often, bands will either release an album that completely falls flat (let’s talk about Marcy Playground some more) or an album that rehashes the first with diminishing results (hello Cloud Nothings).  The hype and pressure combine to completely wreck a band in the process of trying to prove that they’re more than just a flash in the pan.

 

So, Arcade Fire, Greatest Band Of Their Generation.  Funeral was huge when it came out in 2004.  I wept – literally wept – when I first heard “Neighbourhoods #1 (Tunnels)”.  There was a choral nature to the album that struck everyone that listened to it.  It was exactly as it appeared at first blush – the sound of a group of people working out their grief through music that, instead of wallowing in misery, affirmed the beauty and the inherent goodness of life.  If you held a gun to my head, Funeral would be my choice for the greatest album ever recorded.  Hell, you wouldn’t even have to point a gun at my head.  You could just point.  You could ask.  You could be in the same room as me.  I could walk into the room you were in, and I’d tell you the same.  It would get annoying.

 

How to follow it up, though?  The gap between 2004 and 2007 was a long one and the hipsters were waiting for the second Arcade Fire with knives sharpened over and over again.  When it came out, they leapt on it, ready with accusations:  “Ugh, earnest lyrics and politics, how pretentious” and “OMG, it’s so Bruce Springsteen, how gauche” (a line Rolling Stone would take with The Suburbs, with lumbering Boomer efficiency).  Neon Bible shrugs both accusations off, however.  To the first, it adopts a certain fatalism with regard to its apocalyptic subject matter.  In 2006-2007, war fatigue had set in across the Western world.  Bush was in the middle of his Difficult Second Term, and the band’s own home country was engulfed in economic restructuring and political instability.  The crash was still a year off, but the signs of the gathering storm were everywhere.  “Keep The Car Running” wasn’t just paranoia; in 2007, there was a palpable sense that there was something coming, and it was coming in hard.  Who’s to say that, ten years later, the song isn’t even more viscerally relevant:  disappearing from friends and family, gone into the night.  The knock at 4 AM.  The same place animals go when they die.  Keep one eye to the door, listen out for the neighbours, and the stairs.  Keep the car running.

 

There’s that same heady weight to all of these songs.  “Black Mirror” (with that soulful twisting French line that seems to flow out of Regine Chassande like fine chocolate) walks out to the ocean and is greeted with an implacable and ancient force that is as humbling to the human psyche as the stars.  The vast, impersonal ocean crops up again and again throughout the album.  “Black Wave / Bad Vibrations” and “Ocean Of Noise” both tread the same waters, wondering what good human fuckery is in the face of a monolithic force that will always override them without thought or care.  “Neon Bible” and “Intervention” both tackle the grim joy of the Christianity of city missions and the inherent hypocrisy embedded in devout evangelical religion.  “(Antichrist Television Blues)” furthers this exploration by positing Joe Simpson, father of Jessica, imploring God to treat Joe as his mouthpiece and show His glory by selling his daughter to the entertainment machine “to show the world what you’re doing to me”.  “Windowsill” turns away from that same entertainment machine, and from it’s dread implication, Pax Americana.  “I don’t want to live in my father’s house no more” he sings, “I don’t want to live in America no more.”  “Windowsill” is like “Keep The Car Running” in that it knows that something is coming.  Conor Oberst once sang “I Don’t Know When But A Day’s Gonna Come” and all three know that to be true.  “World War III, when are you coming for me?” Win Butler sings, and it’s a question that can still be asked a decade on.  “No Cars Go” is his answer to all of the above:  fuck it, let’s just leave.  We’ll find a place where this death trap we’ve created and christened as The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread, Western Civilization can’t find us.  No planes no trains no automobiles.  No snowmobiles and no skis.  No bosses, no bankers, no landlords.  “My Body Is A Cage” ends on a more intimate note, something more like what “Crown Of Love” was on Funeral; if you’ve never seen the spaghetti western mash-up video for it, you should look that up right now.

 

Where the hipsters saw pretension, there actually exists unvarnished emotion and the sound of a band tapping into the zeitgeist.  The second accusation is much easier to dismiss.  Who doesn’t want to sound like Bruce Springsteen?  I mean, he’s the Boss.  Plus, this cacophony of instrumentation – these guitars, these church organs, violins, clarinets, keyboards, drums, synthesizers, these massed and stacked and soaring vocals – conjures up all of the power that was latent in the Boss’ music in the 1970s and fills it with glorious noise.  When that wall of organ crashes over you (like an ocean wave) on “My Body Is A Cage”, it is at once utterly obliterating and more apocalyptic than even Bruce “There’s no more jobs anymore on account of the economy” Springsteen could have summoned up by 1980.  Win Butler and Co. are earnest and straight-talking, up to a point, but their flair for the dramatic is unmatched in any other band, contemporary or classic.

 

Neon Bible is often the overlooked album in the Arcade Fire canon.  Funeral was the critical bombshell; The Suburbs was the mainstream hit; Reflektor was the Defiant Artistic Statement.  Neon Bible, meanwhile, doesn’t have an ethos-defining peg to hang from – but it might be their most consistent album, and it hits with the implacable force of a tsunami.

Aluminium: 10 Years of Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?

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Of Montreal – Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?

Released January 23rd, 2007 on Polyvinyl Records

BestEverAlbums:  #421

Kevin Barnes is a weird dude, but he’s utterly committed to a good concept.  Hissing Fauna is the first album in a concept trilogy that revolves around Kevin Barnes having a breakdown and transforming into a black male-to-female-to-male transgendered individual named Georgie Fruit, who has spent a couple years in and out of prison and once played in a hard funk band back in the drugged-out Seventies.

What?  OK, check it –

Kevin Barnes married an artist named Nina Twin and moved with her to Norway.  While there he had a bout with clinical depression (he felt the bleak despair of those black metal bands) and marital trouble (a constant refrain of every Of Montreal album after this one) and eventually was prescribed anti-depressants, which leveled him out and gave him the inspiration to write Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?  He came up with the concept of Georgie Fruit, a glammy alter-ego that was more than a bit of a nod at David Bowie’s theatrical character-switching, and in the course of eleven-plus minutes on “The Past Is A Grotesque Animal” switches into the costume.  If that still sounds confusing, just listen to “A Sentence Of Sorts In Kongsvinger” and that should clear things up for you.

Of Montreal is part of the fabled Athens, GA Elephant Six recording collective, and so it must be said that Hissing Fauna is replete with fey psychedelia, ambitious and experimental sound placement, and a love of the culture and music of the Sixties.  Barnes welds that with horny R&B-influenced pop, much as Prince did in his heyday, and as such there’s less “bearded weirdo playing an obscure instrument on an early Beatles cover in a wooden backwood theatre” and more “awkward indie kids dancing at a hole-in-the-wall and hooking up later in a room covered in theatre bills and Xeroxed punk rock flyers”.  It’s less on-the-nose Prince worship than the next two Georgie Fruit-fronted albums, Skeletal Lamping and False Priest, and it retains a lot of the early Of Montreal whimsy and delicateness; it’s telling that the band has never produced a real classic album since.

 

What a pinnacle, though.  “Suffer For Fashion” opens the album with an artillery blast of a pop song, easily one of the best indie tracks released in the Oughts.  “Heimdalsgate Like A Promethean Curse” makes waiting for anti-depressants to kick in sound like it should have always been the subject of a glam-rock epic.  “Gronlandic Edit” has a strut that a thousand would-be funkateers would die for.  “Faberge Falls For Shuggie” is probably the most Elephant Six of the songs presented, and even it wiggles it’s ass for all its worth.  “She’s A Rejecter” is a harrowing hard rocker that presages the more bitter songs Barnes would write about his wife (later ex-wife) as albums went on.  It’s an album overflowing with big hooks, funky struts, and hip literary references that can fly by without being noticed – the mousy girl screaming “violence, violence” is a reference to Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? on the same song that Barnes directly references Georges Bataille and “The Story Of The Eye”.  Ten years on, neither Barnes nor the band as a whole have come close to topping it, despite individual songs capturing the old magic a bit.